Sunday, 16 March 2014

Today, a tipping point in European history

It is a sad day, and one from which there can be no retreat. An illegal referendum, skirmishes across eastern Ukraine, mumbled threats. The scenario looks familiar. The most likely outcome? Crimea territorially incorporated into Russia, another frozen conflict dragging on in the Donbas. Longer term, the rest of Ukraine will become an ideological battleground between the civilised values of the western world and the spiteful revanchism of a Cold War loser. Russia is paranoid - the West is encroaching upon its heartland. With ideas that appeal to middle classes everywhere - rule of law, civil society, transparency, respect for human rights, the West offers more enticing prospects for citizens' futures.

Putin has lost any lingering sympathy he might have still had in the West; he has exposed himself as a dangerous man playing a nasty game tinged with nationalism, he has ostracised himself from the global community. Alone in the UN Security Council, excluded from the Big Table by G7. But his version of the Russian Narrative still plays well at home.

Bit by bit, the shutters will come down on the Russian economy. The West will redouble its efforts to build up energy independence (US gas exports, shale gas exploration in Europe, greater investment in renewable energy), and Western investors in Russia will be preparing themselves for a haircut. Sanctions against individuals will take hold, matched by retaliations from Moscow. But at the end of the day, the Russian economy will hurt first. Russia's dependence on EU as a market for its raw materials and as a source of foreign investment is much greater than the EU's dependence on Russia.

The main reason is that apart from Kalashnikovs, vodka and matryoshka dolls, Russia doesn't make very much. Its industries are run down; what modern factories there are belong to foreign investors like Volkswagen or Ford. Existing investments may keep on going for a while, but major new Western investments will quickly dry up.

Some oligarchs will jump ship, taking stock of the situation to hang onto their London or Monte Carlo-based wealth. Russia's already experiencing a major capital flight - this will intensify in coming weeks. Those that don't jump are too involved in Putin's web and may be on a sanctions shortlist.

In the longer term, can Russia afford to maintain its military and its vast disinformation army (take a look at the comments section of any opinion-making English-language news websites to see the scale of this) as it finds itself increasingly cut off from global markets?

In the Far East, Russia is weak and unprotected. China is playing a clever game, maintaining silence when it comes to criticising Putin's play. Across the Amur, great wealth lies.

You can win a protracted industrial-era war by herding slaves into factories and get them to produce more tanks, more cannon, more ammunition - but you can't herd slaves to write you better software. Conflict has moved on. In one respect, Putin's slick propaganda machine still needs to be matched - there are too many unwitting dupes of Moscow around, retweeting the latest from some Kremlin Lord Haw-haw.

The next steps - a lot of conciliatory talk from Putin, a lot of talk of self-restraint (for Western audiences), while across Ukraine ugly things will continue to happen, mostly stirred up or initiated directly by the Kremlin and its agents.

In the past, smiling images of Mr Putin would mitigate some of the underhand activities going on (Chechnya, Georgia), but now, he's lost it. No charm offensive on his part will be able to take things back to the way they were in 2013. Western analysts and commentators have uncovered the Putin agenda - imperial, nationalistic, revanchist; a direct threat to the European Union as a repository of civilised values, civil society and strong, transparent institutions.

I lived the first 34 years of my life in the Cold War. It looks like Cold War II is dawning. For those too young to remember the first one, life went on pretty much as normal, though with the ever-present nuclear Sword of Damocles hanging over us. How do today's events in Ukraine feel in Poland? I guess similar to what it felt like in West Germany when the Warsaw Pact entered Czechoslovakia in 1968.

If a new Iron Curtain will descend, Poland will be on the right side of it this time, along with nine other former communist countries now within the structures of NATO and the EU. Ukraine may end up split, with a West Ukraine a neutral country like Finland and Austria ended up after WWII. Belarus will become strategic for Russia, a land bridge to the Kaliningrad oblast. Lukashenka will be drawn, whether he likes it or not, deeper and deeper into the Kremlin's maw; he will have no independent alternative. Estonia and Latvia will need to keep a close watch on their Russian populations, to ensure that these don't provoke Putin to try his chances there too. That's NATO territory - that would be extremely unwise.

Putin's 61 - the same age Stalin was in 1939. A dangerous age.

This time last year:
Random sentiments from London suburbs

This time two years ago:
Stalinist neo-classicism in Warsaw

This time three years ago:
A week into Lent
[Easter was very late]

This time four years ago:
Afternoon-dusk-night in the city centre

This time five years ago:
A particularly harrowing reality

This time six years ago:
Wetlands waiting for the spring


Marcin said...

What terrifies the most on the "Operation Crimea and Eastern Ukraine" is that, it looks like it being prepared very precisely, logistically and in-point. In contrast to the sloppy, selfish, procrastinated, cynical unwillingness to do anything of the West. Putin accomplishes all, what he planned. Though, Western elites and establishment look like being sclerotic and Alzheimer sick. Russian troops proceed, with no doubt Russian moles are assigned and performs Kremlin scenario.... How those heavy-minded Westerners react? They announce statements, consider possible reactions and sanctions, issue appeals, voices of unhappiness and blablabla and... ponder... and ponder... and ponder. Sorrowfully, there aren't giants like Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl... who knew the best, what to do. During Reagan times, reaction on something like that was clear, vivid and uneven. Embargo on the whole technology and freezing of the trade and credit lines. To the most developed technology which was able then to transfer up to the Soviet bloc was a sheaf-binder and only for the civil purposes. None of the computer chip or alike, that might be used to produce of weaponry. But, halo? What do we hear nowadays? We hear, that a contract of shipment to Russia of couples of the newest landing carriers Mistral is still in a process. My Lord, knew that, that the Westerners in sake of doing businesses with the Evil Empire are willing to set up there a factory of cords on which they will be hang-up by the Czubariks. None of any of self-preservation instinct. That's sad of all of this.

Alexander said...

A few days before the Kiev uprising started, the Obama administration announced the USA was going to cut their armed forces down to a pre WW 2 level, because the world was safe again.
And after a lot of meetings in Brussels, nothing happened. Not even an arms export embargo to the Ukraine when their army was shooting and killing civillians.
Today I read in the news the German RWE company sold assets for 5.1 biljoen euro to Russia. The support for the Ukraine is almost nothing. The EU gave half a biljoen euro to Ford to move production from Belgium to non EU country Turkey.
The west has extremely weak leaders and is lead by communist Merkel. What Merkel did in the DDR is stil a big sectret.
And the EU has a president that is not elected by the people to ad insult to injury.

I am afraid Putin is going to win. The west is more interested in money.

To make my point more clear: who in the west is stil talking about the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet ?

Best regards, Alexander

Marcin said...

@Alexander Who's a charismatic, assertive, keeping a level head leader in western Europe? Merkel? Cameron? Hollande? Any Rampuy (as how this to be written)? No kidding. Or maybe those corrupted eurocrats and europoliticians? Those molluscous and molly dudes? Those procrastinators and opportunists? Those people of little interests, spivs and hedonists? Those people of short-term thinking? Those people coaxing ones wealthier? Where are those charismatic people with the Euroatlantic mission, nor Sino- or Russia-frenetics?

Sigismundo said...

I'm not being pro-Russian, but I was surprised how one-sided all the (western) news coverage has been.

Ukraine is undoubtedly a 'Failed State' - the economy is going nowhere, the people as a whole are suffering in poverty, emigration is at epidemic levels - a drop from 54m to 45m in just 20 years if memory serves. (I've not heard a word of this, even on the otherwise splendid UK Channel 4 news).
Russia on the other hand seems to be holding its own on the economic front, and despite the oligarchs stealing all the cream, the quality of life for the average Russian is improving, albeit slowly.

What we don't seem to bear in mind is that all the Russian speakers in Ukraine watch Russian TV on a daily basis. There is nothing of comparable quality in Ukraine. They have, through osmosis, become culturally Russian. Surely they also have some right to self-determinism, in the same way that the Flems and Walloons do in Belgium...
I am playing devil's advocate here, but feel the western press is being closed-minded, and is failing to do its job. (P.S. I received no money from any Russian agency for this post).

Sigismundo said...

Further to my last post, I have seen remarkably little on the BBC, or anywhere else, on the historical background to the present crisis, aside from the issue of the Crimean Tatars (albeit with no coverage of the period before the Russian conquest in the 1790s or thereabouts).

Essentially, Ukraine has been divided between Western and Eastern spheres since 1654, when the Ukrainians east of the Dniepr River VOLUNTARILY put themselves under Russian dominion. The western Ukrainians, many of them Catholics, eventually rejoined Poland and so remained closer to the west.

Similarly, I've heard not a word of the 'Plebiscites' that took place in the 'annexed' Polish parts of Byelorussia and Ukraine in October 1939, when these areas decided, in an identical way to the Crimean referendum, to become parts of the Soviet Union. The vote similarly, was in the high 90s %. This is how the old Soviet Union used to do things, 'legitimate' enough to satisfy it's own citizens, if no one else.

Michael Dembinski said...


Ukraine's a failed state because it was a captured state - in the pockets of a gang that happened to be convenient to the Kremlin. A civil society and strong, independent institutions were not allowed to flourish. Made dependent on Russian gas, Ukraine had no incentive to shape up and become internationally competitive.

Russia is no longer "holding its own on the economic front". Stagnation is the key characteristic of the Russian economy. Its home-grown industries are moribund, in contrast with China, Brazil or even India.

The October 1939 plebiscites are an excellent point, entirely overlooked in the analysis. Time to dip into Jan T Gross's Revolution from Abroad, which goes into detail about how the USSR annexed western Byelorussia and Ukraine.